Feb 13, 2012 NEW DELHI: Free medicines to all patients visiting any government health facility across the country could soon be a reality with the health ministry ready to roll out a nearly Rs 30,000 crore ‘free-medicines-for-all’ scheme with the PMO‘s strong backing.

The free medicine initiative along with an expansion of the National Rural Health Mission to urban areas, a more district-oriented approach and implementation of recommendations of the K Srinath Reddy committee on universal health coverage will be important focus points of UPA-2’s health policy. The scheme is also expected to be strongly backed by the Sonia Gandhi-chaired NAC at a meeting on February 17.

At a meeting chaired by Pulok Chatterjee, principal secretary to the PM, on Friday, the medicine-for-all scheme and other thrust areas got a thumbs up with PM Manmohan Singh keen to roll out health sector initiatives. The medicine proposal will help cut India’s tremendously high out-of-pocket (OOP) expenditure on health care.

Speaking to TOI, a ministry official said, “We are ready to roll out the scheme which will provide free generic medicines to all those who visit government health care facilities across the country. This will reduce OOP expenditure and also encourage more people to visit government health facilities. However, we can’t make the announcement now with the elections on as it would violate EC guidelines.”

Instead of increasing public spending on drug procurement when millions of Indian households have no access to medicines, several large states have decreased fund allocation. Consider the case of Kerala. Even though the state spent the highest in India on drug procurement last year – 12.5% of its health expenditure – the expense was significantly less than in 2001, when it stood at 17%.

“We estimate that an increase in the public procurement of medicines from around 0.1% to 0.5% of GDP will ensure universal access to essential drugs, greatly reduce the burden on private OOP expenditures and increase the financial protection for households,” a report has said. Drug prices have shot up phenomenally in India over the past decade and a half. This has been the main reason for the rising costs of medical care, which more than tripled between 1993-94 and 2006-07.